China’s Political Discourse October 2021: New Restrictions for the Media
By China Media Project
Released in late September, just ahead of China’s National Day, a melodramatic film telling the story of volunteer Chinese soldiers fighting against American soldiers during the Korean War was a runaway success at the box office. "The Battle at Lake Changjin" (长津湖) triggered shows of patriotic fervor across schools and university campuses in China in October. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the film, which had a production budget of more than 200 million dollars – making it one of the priciest ever made in China – was under the principal control (主抓) of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, with the Beijing municipal propaganda office taking responsibility for organizing production.
Also in October there was renewed concern over surges in Covid cases. Aside from a new surge in infections in central China traced to a tour group in Shaanxi province, information emerged about cases in the town of Ruili, which sits on Yunnan’s border with Myanmar. As discussion increased, the phrase “Save Ruili!” (救救瑞丽) became the target of censorship in cyberspace and made speech controls publicly visible to many Chinese.
While much focus in the media turned to Covid-related developments, the release on October 20 of an updated list of media whose reports could be reposted on the internet sent shudders through the media industry. It followed the release by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on October 8 of an updated “negative list” clarifying prohibitions against the involvement of private capital in news gathering, editing, broadcasting and distribution activities.
More on these stories further down, but moving on to our analysis.
The Hot and the Cold
About the CMP Discourse Scale:
According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:
For 2021, CMP will adjust its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particular catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows:
In October the terms “pneumonia” (肺炎) and “since the 18th National Congress [of the CCP]” (十八大以来) maintained their places at the top of the CMP Rating list, reaching Tier 1. Joining these two at the top was “Belt and Road” (一带一路), a reference to Xi Jinping’s signature global infrastructure development initiative, which rose from Tier 2 in September.
Dropping from Tier 1 in October were the phrases “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控), which found itself in Tier 2 for the first time in 2021 (with 160 articles for the month), and “reform and opening” (改革开放). “Green development” (绿色发展), a term now associated with environmental policies under Xi Jinping, maintained its position in Tier 2, but in fact showed a rather strong increase in frequency, from 103 articles in September to 153 in October, a new high for the year. “Green development” first appeared in the People’s Daily around 2006, associated at the time with Hu Jintao’s “scientific view of development” (科学发展观).
Three terms in October rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2. These were: “red genes” (红色基因), a term pointing to the political and cultural inheritance of the CCP as a source of national identity and legitimacy, “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), and “the national governance system and the modernization of governing capacity” (国家治理体系和治理能力现代化). The second of these terms, “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization,” is one of a number of shortened forms of Xi’s banner term, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), in this case dealing with environmental policy. Such terms appearing in the official Party-state media can be significant as markers of efforts to build up Xi’s legacy and power. “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” has frequently appeared alongside the term “green development” in recent months.
The terms “institutional advantages” (制度优势), “comprehensively deepening reform” (全面深化改革) and “matters of national importance” (国之大者) dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 3 in October. The second of these terms, “matters of national importance,” or guo zhi da zhe, is one that has lately prompted a great deal of speculation, and could see a marked rise in frequency in the November 2021 discourse report.
Terms dropping from Tier 5 to the bottom at Tier 6 for the month included “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), “stabilizing expectations” (稳预期), “stability preservation” (维稳), and “Five Persists” (五个坚持). “People’s democratic dictatorship” (人民民主专政), which registered 0 uses in September, rose two levels to Tier 4.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of September 2021 and how they rated on our scale:
The Litmus List
Among the nine keywords on our Litmus List, a group including seven terms synonymous with past leadership and two generally indicating discussion of political reform, the most obvious changes were to the terms “democratic politics” (民主政治) and “political civilization” (政治文明), which in September were rated in Tiers 6 and 5 respectively, but which both leapt into Tier 3 for October. Of these two, the rise of “democratic politics” was most pronounced, with 23 articles including the term versus just three the previous month. As the notion of “political system reform” (政治体制改革) has become more sensitive since 2013, “political civilization” and “democratic politics” have been among the phrases that are similar in meaning but more acceptable within the dominant CCP discourse. The rise in October of uses of “democratic politics” corresponded closely with increased coverage in the People’s Daily of “whole process people’s democracy” (全过程人民民主), which has lately been promoted as a unique feature of China’s political system under socialism with Chinese characteristics, the idea being that Chinese enjoy “democratic” processes not just at the ballot box but at numerous stages of the policy-making and application process.
There was increasing official chatter in October of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese narrative” of democracy, as something distinct in particular from Western notions of democracy. This arose from his remarks at the Central People’s Congress Work Conference (中央人大工作会议), at which he made bold claims about the “full-process people’s democracy”:
China's full-process people's democracy has not only complete institutional procedures but also complete participation practices. Our full-process people's democracy realizes the unification of process democracy and result democracy, procedural democracy and substantive democracy, direct democracy and indirect democracy, and people's democracy and the will of the state, and is a full-chain, all-round and full-coverage democracy, the most extensive, real and effective socialist democracy.
Xi suggested that China’s political system allowed full and comprehensive opportunities for the people to be involved – including through “symposiums, demonstration meetings, evaluation sessions, and written, online and other ways of canvassing views and suggestions.”
The process of “full process people’s democracy” is seen as validated and legitimized by the performance of the economy and other aspects through successive administrations. In one of just two articles in the People’s Daily this year (March and June) in which the term “democratic politics” appeared in a headline, the paper treated the “remarkable” achievements of china economically as a proof of the “democratic” nature of the regime:
Over past decades, China has made remarkable achievements worldwide. The process of formulating and implementing one five-year plan after another reflects the unity of the Party's propositions and the people's will, and the vivid practice of democratic politics under socialism with Chinese characteristics.
“Political civilization,” which appeared in just four articles in the People’s Daily in September, appeared in 19 articles in October. “People oriented” (以人为本) and “inner-party democracy” (党内民主), which were in Tiers 4 and 5 respectively in September, fell into Tier 5 and Tier 6, but these drops were not atypical. Both “political system reforms” (政治体制改革) and “inner-party democracy” (党内民主), terms more closely associated generally with more substantive discussions of political reform, recorded no appearances at all.
The Centrality Index
In October, Xi Jinping logged 641 mentions on a per-article basis in the People’s Daily, once again the only top leader to make Tier 1. Premier Li Keqiang rose into Tier 2 for the first time since March 2021 (corresponding to the National People’s Congress and the government work report), with coverage related to his attending the 24th ASEAN-China Summit, the 16th East Asia Summit, and the 130th Session of China Import and Export Fair.
A number of members of the Politburo had slight increases in exposure in the People’s Daily as compared to August and September. Li Zhanshu (栗战书) and Han Zheng (韩正) both rose from Tier 4 to Tier 3. Zhang Youxia (张又侠) and Li Xi (李希) both rose out of the bottom at Tier 6, entering Tier 5 territory. Li Zhanshu’s rise in the tables was due chiefly to his appearance in coverage of the meeting of the 31st session of the 13th NPC Standing Committee, which brought him from 14 articles in September to a total of 29 in October.
Han Zheng appeared in 25 articles in October, versus just 14 in September, largely owing to his hosting of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Kunming. In all, 11 members of the Central Committee made Tier 4 or higher in October.
On October 20, 2021, 7 heads of provinces and autonomous regions underwent job transfers, with Liu Qi (刘奇) of Jiangxi, Yang Chengfa (阮成发) of Yunnan, Lü Xinshe (鹿心社) of Guangxi, Lou Qinjian (娄勤俭) of Jiangsu, Zhang Qingwei (张庆伟) of Heilongjiang, Wu Yingjie (吴英杰) of Tibet and Xu Dazhe (许达哲) of Hunan no longer serving in CCP secretary positions in these respective regions. In the table below, those officials undergoing job transfers are marked in RED.
Beijing CCP Secretary Cai Qi topped the table of provincial-level leaders owing to the 100-day countdown for the Beijing Winter Olympics – due to open on February 4, 2022 – and his participation in the second United Nations Global Sustainable Transport Conference and other events held in Beijing. Li Ganjie (李干杰) was repeatedly mentioned in the People’s Daily as his resignation as governor in Shandong was announced along with his selection as CCP secretary of the province and chairman of its provincial people’s congress.
Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained his top position in Tier 4 in October, leading the pack of foreign leaders, owing to his appearance in coverage related to COP15 in Kunming and other events, as well as front-page coverage on October 12 of a message of condolence sent by Xi Jinping over the crash of a plane in the Russian region of Tatarstan.
Japan’s Fumio Kishida (岸田文雄), who became the country’s new prime minister on October 4, rose rapidly to Tier 4 with six article mentions owing to his appearance at the East Asia Summit. He was joined in Tier 4 by French President Emmanuel Macron, who left the cold category of Tier 6 for the first time since May 2021 thanks to his appearance in coverage of his role in preparations for COP15.
US President Joe Biden appeared in just 2 articles in October. The first dealt with the meeting on October 6 between Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Zurich. The second was a mention of Biden’s name in an article on Premier Li Keqiang’s participation in the 16th East Asia Summit.
Both Russia and the United States maintained their positions in Tier 2 in October, but both saw clear drops in article totals. Japan, Germany and Brazil all dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 3. The United Kingdom moved from Tier 3 to Tier 2 with a small increase in article mentions, from 41 in September to 49 in October, this increase stemming in part from coverage in the People’s Daily of the US submarine deal with Australia. The same story also accounted for a clear increase in the number of articles mentioning Australia, which rose from Tier 4 to Tier 3 in October, with the article total rising to 21 from just 9 in September.
Greece also rose from Tier 4 to Tier 3 in October as a result of People’s Daily coverage of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, with Greece mentioned repeatedly as the origin of the Games.
There were also a number of countries experiencing obvious drops in frequency in October. These included Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, India and other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which experienced stronger coverage in September owing to the opening of the China-ASEAN Expo.
Canada and Afghanistan also saw drops in intensity of coverage, having both experienced stronger coverage in September as a result of Meng Wanzhou’s return to China in the case of Canada, and the Taliban’s announcement of the formation of a new government in the case of Afghanistan.
Eating Frozen Potatoes and Weeping
On October 14, 2021, a post on Weibo claiming that 500 students had watched the war epic The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖) while eating frozen potatoes and weeping – a tribute to the hardships faced by the soldiers depicted in the patriotic film – drew widespread attention online, making the “hot search list” (热搜榜).
The trend began earlier that day with news that the Yuhua Experimental Middle School (宇华实验中学) in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, had arranged for 500 students to watch The Battle at Lake Changjin, a highly melodramatic epic commissioned by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department and directed by fifth-generation director Chen Kaige (陈凯歌). The film dramatizes the story of volunteer Chinese soldiers fighting against the United States during the Korean War, and one of its most iconic shots, used by Party-state media to promote the patriotic spirit, depicts the volunteers eating frozen potatoes in the snow.
In order to allow students and staff to experience the hardships reflected in the film, the Yuhua Experimental Middle School had prepared more than 500 frozen potatoes. Once the screening was finished these were shared out so that all could try them.
The actions of the school were widely discussed on China’s internet. Many questioned the implications for the health of the students. Others felt that this approach to education cheapened patriotism by turning it into a performative act – not to mention the fact that it was a waste of food. But many also affirmed and supported the gesture, feeling it was a novel way to approach patriotic education.
The trending topic also sparked a wave of imitations, as many schools held similar frozen potato events under the banner of patriotic education. News articles and posts proliferated with titles like, “Before the Flag-Raising Ceremony, Changsha No. 11 Middle School Organizes 3,000 Students to Eat Frozen Potatoes,” and “Middle School in Nanchong Organizes Students to Eat Frozen Potatoes at Class Meeting.” There was also a wave of imitations and related reports on social media platforms like Weibo and Douyin, as accounts tried to capitalize on the frozen potato trend to capture traffic. One post read: “Boy in Jiangxi Eating Frozen Potato After Watching ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’ Results in Loosening and Pulling of Three Teeth.”
This absurd outpouring of patriotism – and its orthodontic repercussions – made “watching The Battle at Lake Changjin, weeping and eating frozen potatoes” (看长津湖含泪吃冻土豆) a top surprise phrase for October.
Ruili Needs the Love of the Motherland
As the remote city of Ruili on the border of Myanmar experienced yet another lockdown due to fears of the spread of Covid-19, a flood of posts appeared on Weibo on October 26 that read, “Save Ruili!” (救救瑞丽). In order to avoid deletions from platform monitors, given the sensitivity of news about the chaotic situation in Ruili and news of the pandemic in China generally, many internet users from Ruili used the Pinyin version of the city’s name rather than the Chinese character version, used a letter “R” to stand in for the city’s name, or alternatively used other words in Chinese with a similar sound as they tried to post information about the state of the outbreak in their city.
Many of the posts on Weibo pressed the fact that Ruili had endured five successive lockdowns in a period of just over 100 days, and that the economy in the city had remained in a state of stagnation as a result. They revealed also that the city government had employed heavy-handed measures to deal with successive outbreaks, including forcing people into extended quarantine, threatening violence in order to keep residents in line, and denying residents essentially supplies and services.
As new measures were imposed in October, residents in Ruili had tried to appeal for assistance through various channels online, but continually found that their posts were removed and blocked. In one post, a user from Ruili documented the fact that when a live broadcast was made by the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council on October 24, comments posted by viewers such as “Save Ruili!” and “Save our children!” had not been visible to those outside Yunnan province, but instead had been replaced by comments like “Actively cooperate!” and, “Our country is so strong!”
On October 28, Dai Rongli (戴荣里), the former deputy mayor of Ruili, posted an article on a WeChat public account called, "Ruili Needs the Love of the Motherland" (瑞丽需要祖国的关爱), in which he said the city currently lacked sufficient public finances and resources to counter the epidemic, and that he hoped to prompt national attention to its plight.
According to publicly available information, Dai Rongli left his post as a member of the Standing Committee of the Ruili Municipal CCP Committee and as deputy mayor in 2018. His post in the city was what is referred to as “a temporary post,” or guazhi (挂职), a fact that likely made him feel more secure speaking out about the situation in the city. Dai's views, however, were quickly refuted by the current mayor of Ruili, who responded that "the information in [Dai's] article is out of date and no assistance is needed for the time being." Dai was subsequently interviewed by The Beijing News about his remarks on WeChat, stressing that he deferred to official reports on the ground in Ruili for accurate facts concerning the situation there, but denied any wrongdoing. “I believe that I was not careless in speaking,” he said. “I was only truthfully reflecting certain situations on the ground.”
Non-Public Capital Cannot Engage in News Reporting and Source List
On October 8, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) released the 2021 edition of its Negative Market Access List (市场准入负面清单), which resounded like a warning bell for the country’s media industry.
This latest version of the “negative list” (负面清单) makes it crystal clear that non-public capital is prohibited from engaging in news gathering, editing, broadcasting and distribution businesses, and that non-public capital shall not invest in the establishment and operation of news organizations. The list is much clearer than the 2020 list in defining six guidelines covering various areas of activity in which private capital is prohibited.
The latest Negative Market Access List represents a 180 degree turn from the policy announced more than a decade ago, in January 2010, when the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) – since 2018 merged under the Central Propaganda Department as part of the combined State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television – actually encouraged the participation of non-public funds in the media industry.
This "negative list" does not, however, come entirely as a surprise. Since 2012, certain restrictions have been in place on non-public capital entering the news industry, and access bans have been refined over the years since. The following is a basic timeline of relevant changes since 2012:
In 2012, the General Administration of Press and Publication issued Measures for the Implementation of Reforms to Editorial Systems at Publications (关于报刊编辑部体制改革的实施办法), which specified that non-public capital could not be involved in the restructuring of editorial operations at publications, or in the creation of publishing enterprises.
In 2017, the Cyberspace Administration of China released Provisions for the Administration of Internet News Information Services (互联网新闻信息服务管理规定), which specified that non-public capital could not enter the editorial side of the internet news information business.
In 2018, China instituted a “negative list system,” or fumian qingdan zhidu (负面清单制度) that specified the various sectors that could receive private (“non-public”) capital, and at the same time promulgated that first version of the Negative Market Access List, which specified that “non-public capital cannot enter the editorial side of the internet news information business.”
In 2020, on the basis of the original ban, language was added specifying that "no combinations or institutions shall establish Sino-foreign joint ventures, Sino-foreign cooperative operations, or foreign-funded internet news information service units." The recent 2021 list is a refinement on this foundation.
The storm inside the media industry over the release of the new “negative list” had not yet subsided when news came on October 20 that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) had released a new and updated version of its Internet News Information Source List (互联网新闻信息稿源单位名单), an official list of news “units” approved as “report sources,” or gaoyuan (稿源), that other media outlets may “repost,” or zhuanzai (转载).
The updated list in fact represents a huge increase in authorized sources from the previous list released in 2016, with a total of 1,356 “news units” mentioned. However, a number of well-known online media, including Caixin Online and 36KR, are now removed from the list. The full impact of the recent moves from the NDRC and the CAC are not yet entirely clear, and most media have taken a wait-and-see attitude, but it seems clear enough that they are a further extension of moves by the CCP under Xi Jinping to consolidate Party control of the media and its dominance over public opinion.